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RIP Allen Toussaint, who helped define the sound of New Orleans

Smith Galtney

On Tuesday, Allen Toussaint—composer, producer, performer, New Orleans institution and American icon—died from a heart attack after finishing a show in Madrid. He was 77.

Obituaries hail him as “influential” and “legendary,” but even those words don’t really cut it. This is the guy who wrote Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Get Out My Life Woman,” and handfuls of other ’60s evergreens that still teach musicians how to play. His ’70s productions—Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” every classic cut from The Meters—are fundamental funk. The Rolling Stones, Dylan and The Who covered him. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and The Band worked with him. Led Zeppelin once tried to sound like him (pretty badly on “Royal Orleans”). Hip-hop itself was built with Toussaint beats.

The man’s legacy isn’t merely influential. It’s elemental, essential, necessary.

Growing up in New Orleans in the ’70s, I can remember hearing Glen Campbell’s recording of Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” on the radio. My parents told me it was a New Orleans song, written by a guy who didn’t live all that far from us. It seemed weird that the glitzy superstar who sang “Rhinestone Cowboy” on TV was somehow connected to my hometown. When you’re a kid in New Orleans, it’s easy to think your world is ordinary, that the whole planet celebrates Mardi Gras and eats crawfish étouffée for leftovers and knows how to clap on the backbeat. Allen Toussaint made me realize New Orleans was anything but ordinary. It was a destination for anyone in search of something unique.

It’s why Toussaint didn’t really tour until later in his life. How could he go anywhere when all everybody wanted was to come to him, his studio, his home? In his new memoir, Elvis Costello recalls recording a cover of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice” at Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in 1983. Once basic tracks were completed, Toussaint asked Costello if he’d help with the broccoli. They hopped into a gold Rolls Royce with a “Piano” license plate, picked up a steaming shrimp feast from a local kitchen and headed back to the studio. “This was New Orleans,” Costello writes. “We weren’t just making a record. We’d been invited for supper.”

It was Hurricane Katrina that reluctantly pushed Toussaint out into the world. He settled in New York City shortly after, making television appearances and playing local clubs. “Katrina came along and made us try other things,” he said. “It brought about some new collaborations that were very healthy for me. I even began doing live performances on a regular basis, which was unusual for me, but quite rewarding.” How wonderful that he left us in the midst of a rebirth, finally doing what most musicians do: touring the world.

I saw Toussaint perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this year. In fact, I’m pretty sure he played all the Jazz Fests I’ve ever attended. Native New Orleans folks admittedly get a bit complacent when it comes to their local heroes. Oh, there’s Irma Thomas leading the crowd in a second line, again. There’s Aaron Neville singing that darn “Ave Maria” one more time. Toussaint played the same set I’d always heard him play. All I really remember from that afternoon was how hot it was. And how regal he looked in his sequined blazer. I wish I’d paid better attention.

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